Pre-k paying off for Georgia according to study

Pre-k pays off, according to the early results of a new study. (AJC photo)

Pre-k pays off, according to the early results of a new study. (AJC photo)

There is near universal agreement in the research community that early childhood education benefits disadvantaged children despite the contention of skeptics that Georgia pre-k is just free daycare.

To address that skepticism, Georgia commissioned a study to look at the impact of its pre-k program.

According to the AJC:

A first-of-its kind study of Georgia pre-kindergarten program is nearly complete, and early reports indicate it shows largely good news about the program that has enrolled about 1.2 million youngsters in 20 years.

The study, which cost $1.5 million in lottery dollars, not tax dollars, was launched at the request of lawmakers two years ago amid dire predictions about the long-term viability of the lottery-funded pre-k and HOPE scholarship programs, arguably the state’s two most popular initiatives.

Researchers at the University of North Carolina’s Frank Porter Graham Child Development Institute followed a random sample of pre-k students during the 2011-2012 school year, using pre- and post-tests to measure how much the 4-year-olds learned and classroom observations and teacher surveys to assess classroom quality.

State officials have seen some early data from the researchers, said Kristin Bernhard, education policy adviser to Gov. Nathan Deal. By almost every measure — including language and mathematics — the researchers found that students who went through Georgia pre-k fared better than their national peers, Bernhard said.

Former state Senate Education Committee Chairman Fran Millar, R-Dunwoody, said the researchers’ findings are critical.

“It is extremely important that the people understand that this pre-k program is not baby-sitting, that it is preparing young people for school, and that it makes a difference on achievement at the end of the day,” Millar said.

The program year was shortened to 160 days during the 2011 legislative session among the grim forecasts, sparking a mass exodus of mostly veteran pre-k teachers who said they could not afford an accompanying pay cut of nearly 10 percent. The governor added back 1o of the 20 days last year by dropping plans to open the program, which serves about 84,000 4-year-olds, to an additional 2,000 students.

This year, lawmakers will be asked to restore the remaining 10 days based on the Georgia Lottery Corp.’s banner year, with $3.8 billion in ticket sales. That provided $900 million for HOPE and pre-k, $55 million more than the previous year. HOPE scholars will benefit as well, the governor has said.

Georgia began its own study of pre-k back in 1996 using a Georgia State University team.

The No. 1 recommendation of that study — never enacted — was getting the state’ s poorest children into pre-k classrooms even earlier, at age 3. The study found that poor children needed exposure to a language-rich environment earlier to catch up with peers from more affluent households.

Much of what I noted in a 2005 column about that  study remains the case today:

The study of preschoolers across Georgia found that while the children begin school behind their peers nationally, they gain ground from the beginning of preschool to the end of first grade. By the end of first grade, Georgia’s children exceed the national norms on their overall math skills and their ability to identify letters and words.

However, about one-third of the children whose mothers didn’t complete high school repeated either kindergarten or first grade and scored far lower on standardized tests, according to the findings. That’s because these children come from homes where they have little exposure to the language and social skills essential to school success. Pre-k teachers told Henry and other researchers that much of their time goes to teaching students how to hold a fork or turn pages of a book, basic skills that middle-class 4-year-olds arrive in class already knowing.

With about 40 percent of Georgia children living in low-income households, a statewide educational program targeting at-risk 3-year-olds would be expensive. But those children are costing the state millions of dollars now because many of them end up being held back or dropping out in high school.

The GSU study also suggests that Georgia children are paying a price for the state’s failure to lower class sizes in first grade. The researchers documented a slight downturn in the language skills of Georgia first-graders relative to their peers around the country. They blame the slippage on two factors: a redundancy of what’s being taught in kindergarten and first grade, and higher class sizes.

–from Maureen Downey, for the AJC Get Schooled blog

14 comments Add your comment

Mary Elizabeth

January 17th, 2013
9:35 am

I agree with the content of this article. Early language development in children helps to offset the wide-range of academic functioning that is found in students in all grade levels through high school. Below gives testimony to what happens when this wide-range of academic functioning is allowed to continue in grade levels through high school. The below is a repeat of what I just posted on the “Georgia ranks 16th for strong charter laws” thread.

“As I have pointed out on this blog previously, one of the reasons for disciplinary problems in schools is that some students are so far behind their peers academically in their grade-level course instruction that they are being taught on their ‘Frustration’ levels, and not correctly on their specific ‘Instructional’ levels. Being behind other students academically, and the frustration that that fosters, is one reason some students ‘act out’ in school, and later drop out of school. (Moreover, as has been pointed out on this blog previously, 90% of Georgia’s prisoners are high school drop-outs.) See link, below, for some help regarding this.”


January 17th, 2013
10:29 am

This study shows that what answers you get depend a great deal on what questions you ask. For example, other studies of the federal “Head Start” program for low income children show that the program does initially benefit children. HOWEVER, by the time those students get to 3rd grade, head start participants are indistinguishable from non-head start participants academically.

So, yes the lottery pre-k program confers some educational benefits to young childrean, but are those benefits lasting or temporary? Is there any difference between 3rd graders who did and did not participate in pre-k? 5th graders? We don’t know how long the benefit lasts – if it’s permanent or if it pretty much vanishes by a certain grade. And yet this information is certainly relevant when deciding how to spend limited lottery funds.

Even though lottery-funded pre-k has been around for quite some time now, this question is one the researchers chose not to ask.

Van Jones

January 17th, 2013
10:42 am

I was on the fence before I had kids of my own. I now have 2 that have been through GA Pre-K and 1 more going next year. It has been excellent! Their north Fulton elm school staff rocks.


January 17th, 2013
10:55 am


the whole point of them going early, is so they are indistinguishable from their peers. if we spend a little now it is better then spending a ton later. have them held back, summer school(if it comes back), after school cram sessions for the CRCT, and finally judicial costs.

Mary Elizabeth

January 17th, 2013
11:18 am

@ Already Sheared, 10:29 am

“So, yes the lottery pre-k program confers some educational benefits to young children, but are those benefits lasting or temporary? Is there any difference between 3rd graders who did and did not participate in pre-k? 5th graders?”

We know that language development is not equivalent in children from birth, onward. The pre-k program does much to offset that disparity in children’s language development. However, if the precise instruction levels of individual students are not addressed throughout all grades, including grades 3 and 5 which you specifically addressed above, students will not be able to advance academically to their optimum ability levels and, as a result, some students will fall even more behind others than if their precise instructional levels had been addressed in all grade levels.

Pre-k instruction does aid children in off-setting the initial disparities in students’ academic growth, but educators must not stop with pre-k programs in addressing the specific, individual academic needs of students. Academic need variances must be addressed in all students, at all grade levels, for sustained improvement in students’ academic growth to continue throughout their school tenure, k – 12. See link below:

Just Sayin.....

January 17th, 2013
11:25 am

This suggests that in economically poor households (black, white, hispanic), the adult’s language skills are so poor that it impacts the children. Who would have thought that speaking in extreme southern drawl, spanish or ebonics in the household could hold the children back so much?
This is sarcasm, folks. Of course using proper english as accent-less as possible in the home makes learning and understanding english (as used in greater society) much easier. “Valuing diversity”. in this respect, is akin to valuing failure.

Mary Elizabeth

January 17th, 2013
11:48 am

Just Sayin, 11:25 am

There is more involved in language development than the “proper” pronunciation of words.

Below is an excerpt from “The Case for Continuous Progress. . . .” on my personal blog, which will illustrate how so:

“I, also, want to share a section of her story in which Eboni describes how her young mother exposed her to reading and language development, when she was a baby. I encourage all parents, or guardians, to read to their children early in their lives. This practice, alone, could help your children learn to read well in school. You are exposing your child, early, to the cadences of language in its written form, as well as exposing your child to many storylines, varied experiences, and interesting characters. You are aiding in developing your child’s ability to sustain concentration, and you are enhancing your child’s early language development, and imagination, by reading to your child with enthusiam and interest. The next step will, naturally, be that your child will want to read his, or her, own books. Start with easy to read ‘picture books’ (with sequential plots) from public libraries, and then advance to picture books with some minimal word use under the pictures. Read the book first with your child, and later your child will be able to read those minimal words, by sight, for himself or herself. After that, begin to build your child’s knowledge of consonant names and then sounds (i.e.’b’ sounds like ‘buh’ and ‘d’ sounds like ‘duh’) so that your child can work through sounding out unknown words in the context of the easy-to-read book’s plot development.)”

I disagree with your thought that “valuing diversity” is akin to “valuing failure.” The work of African- American writer James Baldwin gives testimony to the fact that diversity can be a plus. We must look beyond valuing simply accuracy in the pronunciation of words to valuing higher levels of language/concept development, although standard English is important for students to know, as you have indicated.

Mortimer Collins

January 17th, 2013
12:09 pm

“Pre-k paying off for Georgia according to study”
“Researchers at the University of North Carolina’s Frank Porter Graham Child Development Institute”

Im sure their jobs depended on postive results.

Atl Parent

January 17th, 2013
1:01 pm

@Already Sheared: You express reasonable scepticism. Two of the most convincing studies are randomized, longitudinal studies in which children from the same communities were put either in pre-K or not, then continued through into the public school systems. In one, the Perry program, I believe the early academic advantages were not sustained (i.e. the non pre-K kids caught up). BUT, there were very significant long term differences between the two groups that showed up in the adults: lower crime rates, more college degrees, more savings, lower pregnancy rates, etc. in the pre-K group. It is suggested that what the kids learned were ’soft skills’ that translated into better life outcomes–skills like working with others, listening, resolving conflict, self-control.

The other big longitudinal study (going on 40+ years at this point) is the Abecederian study. A key difference between this study and the Perry study was that the children were given much more schooling prior to Kindergarten (more time in the classroom over a longer period). Here, the researchers were shocked to find an IQ improvement that did NOT go away and that lasted into adulthood. They also found the different positive outcomes that showed up in the Perry study. Here’s one place to go for a nice podcast on the issue:

Spending money on preschool is one of the most prudent (and best) things a society can do. It has been calculated that the long term savings (lower social services, lower prison rates, higher tax revenue, etc.) gives present-day investments in pre-school something like a return of 9% annually on the money. We’re foolish if we don’t take advantage.


January 17th, 2013
1:02 pm

My daughter did pre-K. Of course it was a charter pre-K and she was a snob until the third grade. But with ritalin, reform school, and a very liberal application of castor oil, she is now a very productive people person. I visit her at the institution every year. (jklol)

Um, I feel the need to talk about the image of M. Downey that graces the top of her blog. She’s got a Mona Lisa smile. Of course, it’s not a smile. Combine the mouth with the stoic eyes, and you get an expression that projects, “this is the world as I find it. Fix it if you can, please.” Very interesting woman. A sleeper blogger. She’s doesn’t steal material like those three journalistic magpies of the AJC, Heckle and JayKyle. These three bird feeders are the worst examples of sellout hacks in the history of journalism. They don’t just steal material, (Heckle is Luckovich), but they steal tone and voice. They still stink, but they’re making big bucks off of other’s work. So good for them, and all plagiarizers including the honorable Mr Taylor, from Dekalb. Luckovich is a street-joke stealer. I’m embarrassed nearly everytime I read his cartoon. He draws a unique line, but we all do. Most of his gags are already out there and nearly obsolete. He rarely suprises. He’s funny when he goes with the dog. But dogs are intrinsically funny, so it doesn’t really count. He’s WAY past his prime. I can do more with one tweet than he can do with a mural. Sorry. It’s true.

But I learn to appreciate M. Downey more every single day. She’s not just prolific, she’s got taste. She’s the one that Jim Wooten (another true original) went after years and years ago, remember? Gawd that was funny. What’s up with Jim Wooten, anyway? I suggested that he write a book. Did he?

Jerry Eads

January 17th, 2013
1:42 pm

I only took a quick look at the ajc article and above, but it looks like they only did short-term. @ Sheared above pointed out the findings about head start, and other studies have found that the early test score increases (not necessarily to be confused with learning) tend to “wash out” after several years.

FPG in North Carolina is an excellent shop. I would expect that their short-term study was very well done. BUT, and it’s a really important BUT, the really important effect of GOOD early childhood education is long-term, according to the landmark High/Scope research. AND the important stuff was measured in terms of increased high school completion, increased income, lower unemployment, less incarceration and so forth. For very low income children. We don’t know much about the long term additive effects of Pre-K on middle and upper class kids. AND long term effects didn’t come from – pardon me – sitdownshutupandcounttoahundred instruction, or at least testing that measured only that. The importance of Pre-K wasn’t just to get kids to pass Kindergarten and first grade.

From what I’ve read, many of the HOPE supported schools DO in fact deliver proper early childhood curriculum, but it’s probably important to know more about what DOES go on when the doors close across the state, beyond curt claims of “hey, it’s good. Trust us.”

Finally, the benefits of lottery supported “just” daycare probably SHOULD be looked at to measure the economic benefit of such to the localities and the state. It’s likely not insignificant.


January 17th, 2013
3:13 pm

Wow. What a set up. Not falling for it. I think any reader would interpret the last comment for what it is. Bait. Nobody would be moronic enough to actually type those words or make those syntactical choices. Not gonna do it. Na gonna dahhh. (Bush Sr. as depicted by Dana Carvey)

N. GA Teacher

January 17th, 2013
10:36 pm

No doubt pre-K is terrific and, for many children, is what keeps them out of the prison pipeline. What society really needs to do is make progress on social issues so fewer of these kids exist. There is far too much generational poverty, out-of-wedlock births, worthless fathers, etc. To have any real long-term change, pre-K must be combined with some major social fixes.

Ole Guy

January 19th, 2013
4:29 pm

This all sounds great…kids from “diadvantaged” environments learn how to hold a fork while the progress itself is measured by a (supposed) reduction in high school dropouts…good, great, fantastic; I’m about to go bananas with spasms of uncontrollable joy and gidiness.

Now let’s get serious. With few…damn few…exceptions, that high school diploma is only an admittance to far greater challenges. We’ve already “discussed” the college vs trade school arguements, so we won’t go toward one nor the other, but simply this: while high school, in-and-of itself, does not prep the kid for the job market, and for the demands of life, what the kid does AFTER high school, be it college, trade school, or any of a number of post-hs activities determines success. While these studies and findings are great, they all seem to suggest a somewhat short-term benefit…ok, the kid, who “graduated” from pre-k knows how to hld a fork; knows how to perform any number of skills required of a middle schooler…great, fantastic.

Howbout we see some “findings” on high school grads who manage to graduate from the beer-swilling institute of their choice and are then qualified to enter a segment of the work force which really means something. It don’t matter if that institute is the university system, a school of advanced training in the trades, or even the military. Lets just start celebrating something slightly beyond mediocrity.